Failure is a difficult thing to take. There are some people who, when they fail in their secular jobs or careers, never recover enough to meet their full potential and accomplish the things they are capable of accomplishing. Instead, if their failure is bad enough or traumatic enough, they just give up and stop trying. They have lost their courage and their motivation to move forward, and they don’t want to risk achieving anything again because they are afraid that they might fail again.
Failure in Christian ministry is equally hard to take, if not harder. When a pastor or a missionary is forced to step down from their position due to accusations of sin or failure to accomplish their objectives, it is often hard for them to move forward again. Their confidence in their mission has been shattered, they’ve begun to doubt their standing before God, and their joy has been drained.
My prescription for those who go through this kind of experience is simple: deal with your sin and get back into ministry. When I say get back into “ministry,” I don’t necessarily mean get back into “the” ministry. Some sins will disqualify you from some ministries for a very long time. For instance, a pastor who has committed adultery should not go on being a pastor. But that doesn’t mean that he should give up. God still loves him and certainly has ministry for him to perform; it’s just a different kind of ministry. Remember, all Christians are ministers, and everything we do should be our ministry. Our ministry is our interaction with our families, or our coworkers at our secular jobs, or the volunteering we do at the local school. The point is that God has vital work for all of us to do, and those who have fallen into sin need to repent of their sin and then get back up and do whatever work God has put before you. God has not given up on you and condemned you to a life of worthlessness; therefore you have no right to condemn yourself. Jesus died to cleanse you from your sins and you have no right to doubt the power of His blood to do just that.
What makes failure in the ministry especially difficult to bear is the public nature of the work and the conscious realization of how incredibly important the work is. For a Christian, failure in the ministry is no doubt more devastating than failure at our secular jobs. Missionaries and pastors spend a lifetime building relationships around their careers, so when their careers implode they often lose a lot of their friends along with it. People whom they were previously very close with may turn on them suddenly and unexpectedly. They learn the hard way that many Christians have an unhealthy view of their favorite preachers or writers. When their minister is doing well, they idolize him more than they should, giving him some of the glory that ought to go to God. They always speak his name in a special way, as if anything he says or writes somehow is more important than things that are written or spoken by ordinary saints. But when he fails, they turn from idolizing him to demonizing him. They speak his name with a special tone of disgust in their voice and are unlikely to ever really forgive him. This kind of treatment is hard for a fallen minister to deal with, and it may leave him perpetually thinking of himself as a failure.
But it is unbiblical for us as Christians to be harsh to anyone who has sinned, whether he is in “the ministry” or not. Forgiveness must always be given to those who repent, and rebuke must be gentle, with the goal of restoration in mind, as the Apostle Paul writes:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. (Galatians 6:1 NIV)
We see from the verse above that sin must be taken seriously. If one of our brothers falls into sin we must not help him ignore his sin, lest we “also may be tempted.” But on the other hand we must rebuke him “gently” with a mind to “restore” him. The Bible never gives tells us to give up on a brother who has fallen into sin (even the man who committed sin with his stepmother was forgiven by the Apostle Paul). Restoration is always the final goal of rebuke. Restoration to the Christian life includes a restoration to ministry. Therefore, when our brother falls, we need to help him return to whatever ministry is now appropriate for him, so that he can continue to be fruitful for the kingdom.
But there are some in the church who are not gracious and are unwilling to help restore a preacher or teacher who has let them down. Everyone who is in a public ministry needs to watch out for these people. They will attack you and hurt you, and they will often use the Bible to do it. They will quote all the Scriptures that condemn the sins that you have committed, but they will gloss over the passages about grace, love, and patience, longsuffering, and forgiveness, as if those passages are too elementary to be relevant. Once they start gunning for you they become obsessed not with restoring you but with destroying you. Be wary of those who would try to make you a casualty of their own self-righteousness, a trophy of their supposed superior holiness so that they can hang you on a wall somewhere and say gloatingly, “I’m the one who took him out.” They take great pride in exposing supposedly immoral preachers, and derive a sense of achievement from destroying others.
Even the Apostle Paul had to face opposition like this. You might think that if any Christian minister was ever wholly without blame it would have been the Apostle Paul. And yet there were many people who attacked him for many things. If you read between the lines of his second Epistle to the Corinthians, you can easily see that he was attacked for many supposed sins. Some people were critical of him delaying his trip to Corinth, probably accusing him of cowardice (II Corinthians 1:15-17). They attacked his physical appearance and his public speaking skills (II Corinthians 10:10). They accused him of being “untrained in speech” (II Corinthians 11:6). They accused him of exaggerating stories of his ministry such as his escape from Damascus (II Corinthians 11:31). They even criticized him as being unprofessional and unsure of himself for not demanding financial compensation from the Corinthians! (II Corinthians 11:9-11).
Those who were attacking Paul had no desire to see him repent and be forgiven; they simply wanted to take away his influence over the church so that they could fill the vacuum. Paul had a responsibility to resist their false charges so that he could adequately protect the church. This wasn’t easy. At one point the stress became so bad that he began to despair even of his life (II Corinthians 1:8). These same kind of critical people are still with us in the twenty first century. No minister today should be surprised when some people attack him with a goal of destruction rather than restoration in mind. These people may seem holy, but they do not point out your sins in order to help you deal with them, rather they seek to cast you aside and get rid of you. These people are not acting in the Grace of God. There are times that you may have no choice but to resist them, even if part of their charges are true. If they have revealed real sin to you, by all means repent of it and accept the consequences for your own actions, but do not accept their lack of grace since it is not from God. There are times when you need to fight back.
Before I close this article I want to give several examples of believers who have stumbled and later recovered enough to return to ministry. My first example is found in the Bible. John Mark was a young Christian who went with Paul and Barnabas on some of their early missionary travels. Unfortunately, his zeal for missionary work evaporated at some point, and he left the trip prematurely. Later he wanted to go on another missionary trip, and the Apostle Paul rejected him because of his lack of courage:
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:36-41).
We see here, in this passage, a young man who was eager to do the work of a missionary, yet the two veteran missionaries were divided on whether or not they could use him because of his past failures. The Apostle Paul, a man of great wisdom, thought that John Mark should be left behind because he could not be trusted with a mission as important as the one they were now carrying out. Barnabas, on the other hand, who was Mark’s relative (Colossians 4:10), decided not to give up on him and would not yield to Paul’s advice. The two men could not come to an agreement, and the result is that they split and went separate ways. In the end this was probably a good thing, as there were now two groups of missionaries preaching the gospel where before there had been one. Later events seem to prove that Barnabas was right. Mark matured and became a great leader in the early church. Eventually even Paul came to see that Mark was a useful for the ministry and asked Timothy to bring him to him (II Timothy 4:11). Mark later went on to write one of the Gospels. The early church could have easily lost a great missionary and teacher if Barnabas had not stood up to the Apostle Paul and insisted on giving his cousin another chance. Barnabas could have yielded to Paul in the name of Christian unity, but this would not have been fair to Mark, and ultimately, it wouldn’t have been fair to the church either.
A more contemporary example is Darrel Scott, the father of Columbine victim Rachel Scott. Darrel was divorced from his wife in 1989, but a decade later when his daughter was killed in the Columbine shooting he became a public speaker preaching the gospel to thousands. There are some Christians no doubt, who do not think that he is spiritually qualified for a public speaking ministry because of his divorce. I, however, am not going to be quick to condemn him. I have seen one of his recorded speeches where he admits that the divorce was the result of sin and he claims to have reconciled with his wife and her current husband. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. What good would I accomplish by trying to harass him into silence while he is reaching so many people with the gospel? I appreciate the fact that he openly admits that what he did was wrong, rather than defiantly deny that he has sinned the way that other public speakers do.
My final example is myself. About the time I turned fourteen I got the opportunity to assist in a gospel-tract outreach with some other teenagers and counselors at a Christian camp. We drove to a nearby town and distributed tracts to whomever would accept them on the main street where all the bars and restaurants were. That first night did not go well for me. My distribution partner was the director of the entire camp. He challenged me to offer a tract to whomever we would meet next. Unfortunately this turned out to be a rather large and scary looking couple who had just driven into town on their rather loud Harley. I immediately froze, so the camp director had to take over and do it for me. The bikers turned out to be gentle and polite, and graciously accepted our literature. That night, back at the camp, the director told the story of my failure in front of everyone. He used me as an example of the kind of person that they did not want distributing literature. He assumed that I had gone along with the group simply to be with my friends (he was wrong, I didn’t have any friends), and in the future he wanted kids who were serious about sharing the gospel. I didn’t take his judgment personally, but I didn’t give up either. I requested to go out with the group again, but I got turned down. The next year I signed up for a week-long evangelistic outreach through the same camp. It was a good time. I conquered a lot of my fears and I got into several good conversations with unbelievers about the gospel. But during that week the camp counselor once again stood up in front of everyone and once again narrated the story about how I had wimped out in front of the bikers. I do not exactly remember what the point of his story was this time, but I don’t think he remembered who I was. He didn’t realize that the very kid he was talking about was sitting in the audience in front of him smiling at him.
And so the camp director told the story several more times for several camp events, probably including some that I did not attend. Every year I went back to that same evangelism camp and got more experience talking to unbelievers. I probably handed out thousands of tracts over the course of several years. Finally I experienced enough grace from God that I was no longer bothered by my past failure. That year I didn’t wait for the camp director to share the story. Instead I stood up in front of the microphone during share time and told it myself. When I got done I don’t think anyone thought I was a failure. Instead they were encouraged by my willingness to keep going and sharing the gospel even though I have always been very shy and it didn’t come easy to me. I wonder if the camp director ever shared the story again after that, and if the lesson from the story has changed at all.
The point is that we can’t always give up in ministry just because people tell us to. Sometimes they may be right. Our past sins might disqualify us for certain ministries. But sometimes they are wrong. We need to think carefully before we give up and call it quits. We need to be sure that we are doing the right thing.